New season, same old Tactically Naive. Welcome back to SB Nation’s weekly soccer column. It’s raining.
The Premier League is back
Ah, the Premier League. It seems only yesterday that Manchester City and Liverpool were coming to the end of their epic title race, one that ended only when one side proved to be a fraction less perfect than the other. And now: a new campaign, a new dawn, and perhaps new adventures. Let’s check in on the first week.
Liverpool put four goals past Norwich in the first half!
Manchester City score five against West Ham!
Tactically Naive has never made predictions and never will. But if the Liverpool-City vs. 18-other-scrubs dynamic persists — and based on the showings of Norwich and West Ham, it could — then we can’t help but wonder what this will do to the Premier League as an experience. What will happen if the atmosphere of the end of last season’s title race extends out over a full season? A relentless march of they’ve won, now they’ve won, and they’ve won again, and they’ve won again, all through winter and on into spring.
Moment to moment, game to game, it could be kind of bleak. Football is at its best when there are two teams trying to play it; if one is adopting the crash position and hoping to survive without too much damage to their goal difference, it doesn’t do much for the spectacle.
But the corollary to that is the increased stakes of, well, everything. Once upon a time, back when the Premier League was a fresh-faced youngster, title challenging sides could basically fumble their way through the first half of the season. Stick a big run in the second half of the season, and that’ll probably see you right.
The shock therapies of Mourinho’s Chelsea and now Guardiola’s City have seen this indolence off. Now we are in the slightly ridiculous situation where everything feels important, even here in the middle of August. That a point dropped here could resonate all the way through to May. That it’s time to start thinking about goal difference. That it’s a marathon and a sprint, all at the same time.
Of course, much chaos lies between now and May: European campaigns, injuries, transfers. Neither side have yet played any of the other big teams: Tottenham, Chelsea, United, or Brighton & Hove Albion. Yet more than anything else, there’s a sense almost of imposition. We have to start paying proper attention right away? Frankly, that doesn’t seem fair.
Neymar is … not back
History will record that Neymar’s move to Paris Saint-Germain was fundamentally a self-centred one, in a quite literal sense: he wanted to put himself at the centre of something. And he did. And it’s probably fair to say that it hasn’t quite gone to plan.
He didn’t play for PSG this weekend, though of course they still won. But he was at the centre of things even in his absence, as PSG fans chanted his name and unveiled banners in his honour. Sorry, his dishonour. TN’s French isn’t great, but we think the rough translation runs something like:
Neymar, please depart in as prompt a fashion as possible
Neymar, we are of the opinion that, on balance, your relationship with our club has been largely (if not wholly) transactional and we, for our part, find that more than a little frustrating
Still, while his time in Paris hasn’t quite worked out as planned, Neymar has managed something fairly remarkable. He is, after all, one of the most thrilling footballers of his generation, an incisive multi-faceted attacker blessed with pace, vision, and a pretty remarkable scoring record. And yet his name is now a byword for tedious dicking about. Where jaws should be dropping, instead eyes are rolling.
Perhaps it’s all been a piece of performance art on the fundamental incompatibility between a cult of celebrity that operates on the level of the individual and a sport that requires the individual be made subservient to the cause. If so, it’s very good, and Neymar should probably win prizes.
If not, well, it feels like Real Madrid is the call. He can’t be happy, and he really doesn’t need the stress of a return to Barcelona. Just imagine the awkward conversations. Hi guys. Sorry about the whole thing. You know. That. Is … is my old number still available? Just checking, just checking. So, er, what have you been up to?
That time is experienced at different speeds is well recorded: we all know that time flies when you’re having fun, moves briskly when you’re moderately contented, and QWOPs along the ground when you’ve got a toothache. But even allowing for that, and for slow motion, we estimate that the 21-second clip below is about four hours long, and most of that is the time between the ball hitting the referee, and the referee raising his hand with his thumb up.
Malcom returns the ball to the ref with great accuracy— Polo Maruwa (@elchaupo) August 11, 2019
His reaction is priceless pic.twitter.com/Xpx3Dedbse
In that time, Malcom is alone with his thoughts, and his thoughts are desperate. He is realizing there might be a red card coming. He is planning his formal apology. He is mulling the tiny village in Outer Mongolia where he will retreat with his family and his shame. He is picking out his alias. He is fleshing out his backstory. He is choosing a new vocation. He is— oh, it’s a thumbs up. What a relief.